Heritage: A Legacy of Destruction (Unabridged)
Chitvan Gill

Delhi is a city blessed with a phenomenal built legacy, her rich history spanning centuries, the splendour illuminated by the wealth of monuments belonging to different chapters of her long past… As the skyline of Delhi is marred increasingly by a completely banal interpretation of modern architecture, devoid of all imagination, as the city gets overrun by the ubiquitous high-rise building, and as its urban fabric fast begins to resemble any other nameless, faceless third world ‘modern city’ – pathetic, disorderly imitators of their First World cousins – the urgency of retaining the unique face and character of Delhi becomes ever more immediate.

The DDA has possibly – though perfunctorily – recognized the need for this, but the two-page chapter on heritage (in an over 200 page document) outlining the plans for ‘conservation of built heritage’ will prove to be severely inadequate in tackling this monumental task. It appears as if the effort of planning for this ‘Built Legacy’ proved to be so overwhelming that the planners just collapsed; or could the reason for the baffling vagueness of this chapter be more sinister – located in the sweeping clauses for commercialization, mixed land use and the ‘maximum densification’ of Delhi?

The bureaucratic inertia that has crafted this document is so tangible, all sense of exigency is completely missing. Countries the world over have long recognized the importance of heritage and are shaping cites around their legacies. All formal planning recognizes the value and importance of such heritage and it is not just represented as a fleeting afterthought in Master Plans. The great cities of the world have long moved beyond the concept of heritage as nothing other than a listing of ‘endangered monuments’. Europe has demonstrated its success in the preservation of its historic cities, and though the European model may not be directly applicable to the chaos and randomness of Asian cities, today even cities like Shanghai – the very icons of rampaging modernity – are conserving their historic city centres in the heart of the new urban fabric. The DDA finds no lessons to learn in these, and remains, instead, trapped in the time warp that has deformed its perspectives for the past fifty years.

Today, the built heritage and monuments of Delhi are under constant and rising danger of extinction, facing what the DDA, in its usual pedestrian fashion, describes as ‘rapid urbanisation’. The business of conservation now involves a serious fight for the preservation of our heritage in the face of the ever increasing and reckless pressures of careless commercialization. And it is the DDA itself which has repeatedly lost this fight – often without much of a struggle – amending the provisions of past Master Plans time after time.

MPD 2021 acknowledges that, “Delhi is a historical city… Large number of monuments are scattered all over… The built heritage of Delhi is an irreplaceable and non renewable cultural resource” that “enhances Delhi’s environment, giving it identity and character. It encompasses culture, lifestyles, design, materials, engineering and architecture”. The Master Plan notes that 170 “historical monuments, sites and buildings” have been declared as protected, though the Archeological Survey of India had identified as many as 1321 in 1911. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), and the State Archaeological Department have also “published lists of heritage buildings”.

But a visible strategy to preserve even this identified architectural legacy – not to mention large areas of cultural significance, architectural note and historical value that have been left out of these various inventories – appears to be altogether absent. MPD 2021’s ‘conservation strategy’ – if it can be dignified with such a title – seems to dispense with even the pretence of laying down specific guidelines in its feeble attempt to conserve the city’s heritage. It states, “The agencies concerned with the protection of Delhi’s built heritage are ASI, GNCTD, State Archaeology Department, NDMC, MCD, Cantonment board and DDA”. After a cursory one liner about the need to protect the built heritage it goes on to add, “It is suggested that with the aim of framing policies and strategies for conservation, appropriate action plans may be prepared by all the agencies.” And it is left to these agencies to “Prepare guidelines for development, redevelopment, additions alterations, repairs, renovations and reuse of the heritage buildings.” But what is the ‘Master Plan’ for conservation here? At one stroke, all planning for the heritage and conservation movement is left in the hands of seven separate agencies with a history of poor coordination and of working at cross purposes. The Master Plan itself appears to take no responsibility for the preservation of the city’s heritage.

Given the notorious difficulties and roadblocks each of these agencies encounters – and often creates – in engaging in the simplest tasks requiring coordination with each other, it is not difficult to imagine where Delhi’s heritage is headed. As an afterthought, the Master Plan, notes “It will also be necessary to maintain close interaction and coordination between all these agencies.” But as to how this gargantuan task is to be achieved, we are given no clue. Worse, we have simply no idea of what the conservation policy is or will be. To the extent that multiple agencies all follow different, and often conflicting, agendas, the scenario has all the makings of bedlam.

And fuelling our qualms is the admission in another chapter in the Master Plan, “The planning process needs reforms and innovations as follow up of the Master Plan had always been a slow starter and could not meet projected targets adequately…”

It is interesting to see the Master Plan’s listing of heritage zones. The Walled City, Nizamuddin, Mehrauli, Begumpur, Chirag Dilli… All these are already living examples of how fully heritage zones can be violated, their original character wiped out of existence. Today, these are all victims of rampant commercialization, or the ghettoization that has occurred as a result of encroachments and unrestrained development – itself a consequence of the acute and chronic shortage of decent housing for the poor; victims of disastrous urban policies twisted out of context, changed and altered to suit every other purpose save the protection of heritage: Shahjahanabad is now a declared ‘slum’ under the Slum Act, Begumpur appears not far from being one and in Mehrauli ‘encroachers’ live in Zafar Mahal, one of the last of the great exemplars of Mughal architecture.

Despite this, in other chapters, the Master Plan has allowed for the further densification of these very areas!

Connaught Place – certainly a heritage site by any rational criterion – finds no mention in the chapter on heritage. But in MPD 2021’s proposals under the section on ‘trade and commerce’ we find: “The development of the metropolitan city centre in harmony with the existing urban form of the classical Connaught Circus and multi-storeyed buildings in its extension is envisaged to bring in visual integration in the overall form.” Again, elsewhere, “Lutyens Bungalow Zone, including NDMC area, comprises of large size plots and has a very pleasant green environment… (it) has a heritage value which has to be conserved in the process of redevelopment of this area” (Emphasis added). The precise nature of this ‘redevelopment’ is never spelt out.

The M.N. Buch Committee, which had submitted a report on the ‘redensification’ of the LBZ area in 1998, had very clearly rejected a high rise profile for Lutyen’s Delhi (and for Delhi in general) on “grounds of economy, energy saving, pollution control and aesthetics.” The Committee observed, further, “any interference by densification and high-rise construction would tantamount to a crime. New Delhi needs intelligent, dynamic conservation.”

For the walled city, MPD 2021 notes, “redevelopment of Government owned katras is to be taken on priority to trigger the reconstruction activity… the predominant land use of this area is residential with flexible mix use…”

Bafflingly, in another chapter with reference to Connaught Place and the Walled city, the Master Plan states, “These Metropolitian City Centres need to be seen in the light of the historical legacy of the pre-colonial and post colonial capital cities of the so called old and new cities of Delhi…”

We have seen the fate of monuments that happen to be located in ‘urban villages’ – there is not an inch of space left around these and builders wait around, dripping avarice, then suddenly, virtually overnight, we find the structure has been knocked down and a four storey commercial structure has been erected in its place.

Where, what, is the policy, the laws, that should be framed in order to be able to make possible the conservation of the city’s heritage? What is to be done in the battle between the chaotic nature of a loosely governed planning framework and the urban devastation resulting from the absence of clear policies? The way things stand in Delhi today, heritage is certainly not a pressing policy concern. But it is only by adopting a very strong stand and formulating a precise, clearly worked out policy, backed by the rule of law and a powerful, coherent, mechanism of implementation, that we can even begin to address this problem

Another of the oddities of the Master Plan is that it has seen fit to devote an entire chapter to “Government Offices’’, where it states, “Government of India, of NCTD and local bodies are occupying prime land in Delhi for their offices. Most of the offices have been set up immediately after independence… Optimum utilization of existing Government Offices / land could be achieved by the following measures: 1) Intensive utilization of existing Government Offices/ land. 2) Surplus land can be utilized by the Government themselves for residential development. 3) 10 percent of total FAR can be used for commercial uses to make the restructuring process financially feasible… Barracks area adjoining to the old secretariat could be redeveloped to accommodate additional GNCT Delhi Offices.”

What on earth is going on here? The GoI offices are almost all located in areas, or are themselves, of heritage value. What this free-for-all building and ‘commercialization’ will do to these areas is nothing short of a nightmare. Interestingly, or rather shockingly, while the plan lists the Central Vista (Rajpath) as a heritage zone, the Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) and Connaught Place fail to find mention in the listing of heritage areas, which the Master Plan defines as “an area, which has significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of buildings, structures, groups or complexes united historically or aesthetically by plan or physical development.” So how can this miss out the LBZ and Connaught Place?

The DDA has certainly not bothered to formulate any kind of thinking which would drive heritage development. For MPD 2021, this seems to be nothing more than a question of preserving a handful of existing monuments and earmarking various ‘zones’ where the ‘redevelopment’ process has to be qualified by a few weak provisions for ‘harmonization’ with ‘existing forms’. That done, their work is over. The whole business of looking after monuments that are, as they put it, “scattered all over the city”, appears to be more of an annoyance.

Heritage conservation cannot be carried out in isolation; it is no longer simply a matter of preserving individual buildings. A new approach needs to be worked out, one that sees the city as an integrated whole, woven around the complex patterns of its legacies – not just the ‘preservation’ of ‘monuments’ that are left standing, oafishly surrounded by, and completely at odds with, a cluttered urban environment. The conceptual failure is manifest in the Master Plan’s observation that, “While preparing any layout plans, these (heritage buildings) should be suitably incorporated.” Rather than stressing the necessity of allowing the built heritage to dictate and shape the enveloping urban forms, such buildings are seen, once again, as just a nuisance that has to be ‘accommodated’.

Urban form is perhaps the least of the DDA’s concerns. As the Master Plan sagely notes, “Delhi had a traditional urban design which is reflected in the glory of 17th century Shahjahanabad and New Delhi. In the course of time Delhi is becoming (an) amorphous aggregate of masses and voids.” To correct these cumulative distortions, the Master Plan offers a range of suggestions on ‘urban design’, including the character of standardized ‘street furniture’, pavements, building restrictions, parks, hoardings, ‘signage’ and flora across the city, to give it a “New Delhi character”. But it is precisely Delhi’s ‘improvements’ and past projects by the MCD, NDMC and DDA at what was euphemistically described as ‘artification’ that have created some of the most grotesque forms in the city. The agencies charged with this task of ‘harmonisation’ and ‘urban design’ simply lack the innovative capacities and sensibilities to metamorphose Delhi into a ‘world class city’.

Some of the tentative suggestions in the Master Plan come as a shock, as you are confronted with the administration’s history of apathy and culture of banality. MPD 2021 contains exhortations to “maintain and update a data base” on heritage areas and buildings; and to “develop organizational capacity for heritage management”! All this has yet to be started? What were they doing for all these years? But it goes on, with list after list competing with the others in sheer vacuity. These are lists that could have been prepared by a fifth grade student drawing up an itinerary for heritage management in the city. There is no reflection of an understanding of the dynamic that sustains or undermines a city’s heritage, no effort to assess and exploit the potential spin-offs that can be generated through integrated heritage development – an exercise that great and evolving cities across the world have profitably engaged in. The DDA appears to see Delhi’s built heritage as a white elephant, an unproductive asset, an unwanted obstruction to its grand plans for ‘redevelopment, densification and commercialization’ – the fundamental mantras of the Master Plan.

But there is a critical need, today, to redefine the way heritage spaces are used, to build them into the city’s social fabric, and to maximize their commercial potential without degrading the structures. Properly conceived, heritage can not only pay for itself, it can add immensely to the wealth of the city. Such a vision, unfortunately, has no part to play in MPD 2021.

The complex pressures that undermine heritage management are illustrated by some interesting decisions that have been taken in the past. In 2002, the Urban Development Ministry allotted a 22 acre green patch in the heart of the Lutyens area to the Defence Research and Development Organisation for a new office complex. The areas falls squarely within the LBZ, which, it is useful to recall, was designated as one of the world’s most endangered sites by the World Monument Fund, in 2002 – the very year the Ministry took this deeply flawed decision. The M.N. Buch Committee had, moreover, very clearly noted that “all green spaces in LBZ must be conserved, improved and enhanced.”

Again, notice the gifting of 8 acres of land on the Central Vista – opposite the National Musuem – to the External Affairs Ministry for a new ‘Videsh Bhawan’ office complex (and a preliminary look at the proposed design arouses the gravest misgivings, though it may well adhere to the DDA’s FAR, height and other restrictions). Decades ago, Edwin Lutyens had earmarked this specific area as a ‘cultural hub’, a place to nurture and showcase the country’s creative best, surrounded by buildings of supreme importance. DDA’s Delhi has turned this proposed cultural hub on the Central Vista into a playing field for babus. Instead of a national theatre, galleries, cultural foundations, and centres of artistic and civilisational excellence, we now have the prospect of a bastion of the external affairs ministry lording it over space stolen from the people. This is among the Administration’s many contributions to Delhi’s ‘heritage’. Just as it has presided over the erosion and extinction of many of the city’s past splendours, it continues with its task of grasping that elevated past and bringing it crashing down to earth.

The writer is Convenor, Urban Futures Initiative

An abridged version of this article was published in The Pioneer, June 6, 2005





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